Hundreds of letters mailed by postmasters to defend the proposed postage rate increase against attack by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce were paid for the postal customers through their purchase of stamps and services. Associated Press yesterday incorrectly reported the Postal Service's source of funds. (Published 7/6/90)

Western and Midwestern postmasters have been using taxpayers' money to mail hundreds of letters defending the proposed postage rate increase against a business group's attack.

Many of the envelopes are marked "Official Business." A few dozen contain form letters.

The recipient of the letters, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, objects.

"It's wrong for people on the government payroll to be using government time and resources to lobby," said chamber official Tracey Schreft.

But the Postal Service said the letters are a legitimate response to a chamber brochure opposing the proposed new 30-cent stamp.

Titled "Cancel This Stamp," the brochure invites the chamber's member businesses to battle the rate increase and "join the fight against waste in the Postal Service."

The brochure contains "inaccuracies and distortions intended to discredit the great job we're doing," said Jim Mruk, a Chicago-based Postal Service spokesman. "We feel the use of the penalty envelope is warranted. This is part of the normal course of doing business. We have no apologies for it at all."

A penalty envelope is one that carries a fine for private use.

The Postal Service said it does not know how much the letters cost taxpayers because it is uncertain how many were sent.

Mruk said there was no "organized effort to lobby the chamber."

Rather, he said, the Central Region's postmaster general wrote the chamber about the brochure and sent copies to medium-level managers "who shared them with postmasters." He said no rules were violated because postmasters were not coerced into sending letters.

The chamber said it has been getting 100 letters a day from postmasters and other postal employees.

About half the letters are marked "Official Business" and the rest contain 25-cent stamps or seals, the chamber said.

All the letters are from the Postal Service's Central Region, which includes Colorado, Wyoming, the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Missouri.

"As an employee who works closely with the community and the Chamber of Commerce, I must complain strongly and bitterly against the article being disseminated from your office entitled 'Cancel This Stamp,' " began a letter from postmaster Cecelia White of Ada, Kan.

The letter criticizes the brochure for alleged inaccuracies and for soliciting Postal Service "horror stories" from businesses.

The same letter arrived from postmasters in Partridge, Redfield and other Kansas communities. All had taxpayer-funded franks instead of stamps.

In an interview, White said she did not think about paying for the letter herself.

The independent Postal Rate Commission has until early next year to review the agency's rate increase plan. A first-class stamp would go from 25 cents to 30 cents, postcards from 15 cents to 20 cents, and the cost of sending a seven-pound package would rise from $4.00 to $5.06.

Last month, the Postal Service withdrew a $21,000 advertisement from a chamber magazine following stories critical of the rate increase plan.